Pink Shirts and Swinging Hips: Is Tunisian Masculinity Really Changing?

A mannequin in a shop in the Zephyr mall in the La Marsa sporting a pink shirt, Thursday, June 20, 2019. Photo by Meshkal news team.

Dancing on stage at the state’s Culture House in the neighborhood of Bab Souika, Achraf was a study in contrast. Achraf’s appearance was flamboyantly riffing on traditional men’s wear: vest on his chest, red chechia on his head, and a big mustache curled up at the ends. But his movements spoke in traditionally feminine tones – jerking hips, white tassels hanging from either side: “a woman’s dance,” according to Achraf.

Achraf is a professional, part time dancer who designs accessories as a day job. His May 28 performance played to a full house, and when he came off stage to dance with the crowd, some in the crowd would join him to dance or take photos.

“I want to show my female part, my other side, my real side,” Achraf told Meshkal in the days after his performance “When you are on stage you are beautiful, you make it fun, you are the star. But after that you are horseshit, I swear.”

The negativity Achraf feels once he’s off stage comes from acquaintances who watch and cheer when they are in the audience but who are fiercely judgmental in private, under the cover of social media.

“I have a friend on Instagram who said [in a direct message]: ‘It was so disgusting watching you dancing like that,’ and the day after I had a show and I saw him in the bar [cheering] my performance. And I thought: ‘What? Are you fucking kidding me?’” Achraf said.

For some, Achraf’s expression of “female” dance moves may be a challenge to traditional concepts of masculinity.

The topic of masculinity isn’t often in the media. Many discussions around gender revolve around “gender equality,” most recently in legislative steps to try and ensure gender equality in inheritance. While those fighting for greater equality between the sexes in Tunisia have achieved some notable successes, Tunisian politicians in particular have a long history of highlighting women’s rights for specific political purposes—what one Tunisian journalist called “fake feminism.”

Meanwhile, when media does focus on issues relating specifically to men, the lens is often on socioeconomic and political challenges facing a younger generation: radicalization, unemployment, informal migration, riots. One Economist headline in early 2011 during the revolutionary protests looking at some of these issues ran with the headline “Sour Young Men.”

Yet culturally and socially, the issue of masculinity is one that is in flux: evolving for the better according to some, merely changing superficially according to others who see masculinity as linked to violence.

Sports, Cars, and Cosmetics?

While Achraf was performing in Bab Souika, on the other side of the city in the Mutuelleville neighborhood people had begun filing into the clothing and trinket boutique “Mooja” to celebrate the launch of a men’s magazine called HOA (“He” in Arabic).

Visitors posed in front of a banner display reading “HOA: Men’s Way of Life,” a DJ set an upbeat tone, local designers sold men’s clothing, and a barber offered men’s haircuts to guests.

The magazine’s website features five sections divided into tabs across the banner: “Way of Life,” “Sport,” “Business,” “Auto,” and “High Tech.”

But while content on HOA’s site is broken into stereotypically masculine categories, the magazine’s editor and founder Essia Chouikha happens to be a woman.

“In Tunisia, we have many women’s titles directed by men so why not the other way around? Then, I [thought] that what interests men is how women think, and how to please women. So, the female prism becomes very interesting for them,” Chouikha told Meshkal in an email.

How to please and impress women from the perspective of a heterosexual man is the theme of one HOA article available online entitled “Becoming a (Real) Gentlemen in 10 Lessons,” incidentally written by “the women of HOA.” But the assumption that a man must be heterosexual and trying to please women is problematic for some.

Khookha McQueer, who keeps a beard and describes herself as trans non-binary, believes the way masculinity is depicted in Tunisian media perpetuates traditional gender norms and that is problematic for many reasons.

“I think our understanding of masculinity is not necessarily inclusive,” McQueer told Meshkal. She would like to see new media outlets “be inclusive and provide a wide spectrum of masculinity. But if they will reinforce stereotypes and our idea of traditional masculinity then I think it is toxic in nature.”

“My problem with mainstream masculinity is that it is not presented as one of the masculinities. If that was the case, then I would shut my mouth,” McQueer said. “Show that kind of masculinity, but in a spectrum of other masculinities. And make them coexist together, and [don’t just perpetuate] one kind that makes the new generations reproduce the same kind of masculinity every time, stuck forever in that kind of masculinity that is based on the rejection of other masculinities.”

Chouikha says she wants her magazine to welcome non-traditional forms of masculinity, including men who cook or dance or who don’t adhere to a masculinity that equates to virility. HOA’s Instagram stories during the week of June 9 to June 15, 2019, for example, regularly featured the Tunis Fashion Week event and was promoting a men’s cosmetics line.

“Masculinity has completely evolved in Tunisian society. It has even lost its ‘sacred’ aspect. Today, a man can go out in the street with a pink t-shirt…with teddy bears…[and it] does not shock [people] anymore. On the contrary, [such a man would look] like a stylish man,” Chouikha said.

For others, such changes in fashion and traditional job roles and hobbies don’t amount to an evolution in masculinity but merely superficial change.

“For example, in the 90s it was hard to see a guy wear a pink shirt. Now it’s not perceived—for the most part—as a feminine thing. So things like these change but I don’t know if the attachment to the concept of masculinity [has changed],” Nabil, a man in in his early 30s, told Meshkal. “Maybe a pink shirt is no [longer] part of the parameters of what you judge someone as being masculine or not…[but] I’m not sure [masculinity] is necessarily going to change on a bigger scale in Tunisia.”

Nabil (not his real name) says he is both gay and a bit feminine, two things he is quick to clarify don’t necessarily go together. Nabil came out to close friends in his early 20s, and he says it wasn’t a such a big deal then.

“I felt free even the way I expressed myself. I didn’t feel I had to be self aware about how I move or how I speak or where my vocal pitch is at. But then you get in a cab [and] you kind of need to tone it down a little bit. It’s weird but I feel natural in both skins. But when I think about it, I don’t think it’s like two skins. Just like when you talk to your mother it’s not the same way as you talk to your friends,” Nabil told Meshkal.

“I told my mom and she slapped me”: The Violent Policing of Masculinity

But the borders of masculinity weren’t always so easy to navigate for Nabil. He says that at an early age his family violently disciplined him for his more “feminine” qualities. He remembers belly dancing at age four or five and making his family laugh.

“But then maybe around six and seven I was literally beat off of it. You hear a lot of criticism and they call you girly, and the tone sounded like it is a bad thing.  I remember my cousin put lipstick on me around that age and then I told my mom and she slapped me,” Nabil told Meshkal.

Nabil recalls a particularly traumatic episode when he was 15 and his extended family sat him down to explain everything that was wrong with how he carried himself.

“They were very specific about things like the way I walk, like my posture,” Nabil recently told Meshkal in the corner of a coffee shop as he began to cry. “I started kind of overcompensating… my whole back was sore for like two or three days from [it]. I thought if I do that I would look masculine.”

Nabil’s situation is not unusual. Others that Meshkal spoke with for this article said they continue to be the victims of some form of physical and emotional violence from those close to them because of the “feminine” qualities others saw in them.

“Two days ago I was hit by my brother because I dance,” Achraf the dancer said. “He said that I should stop doing [it], that I should think about my family, what the others are thinking about me.”

McQueer, who dresses in drag in intimate settings, has spent a lot of time reflecting on the ways in which social spaces have limited her through the use of violence. For her, the very architecture of public space shapes the encounters she receives for her appearance.

“Some places are really more threatening than others. For example, the medina. I spoke about my experience walking around the medina. It was the toughest experience. Because even the structure of the space, the structure of the medina is very limiting. You cannot avoid [violence].” McQueer said. “When I walk in a large space in open areas, I tend to move and to navigate in a way to avoid toxic masculinity – macho men. Everything that may seem threatening. In the medina it’s almost impossible. The space is very limited.”

Social class also makes a big difference in terms of how masculinity is policed. McQueer sees masculinity as tied up with power and domination in society. As a result, those with class privileges, money, and cultural capital in society don’t need to use violence in the same way to enforce or reproduce masculinity, she says.

“Masculinity in working classes and poorer classes, it takes a physical shape. It’s more tangible because it is translated into physical power. I think because I noticed that people from a certain social class don’t have the need to affirm their power physically, they have the power of money,” McQueer said. “I think it is more difficult for poor queer people to come out and express their gender expression because gender norms and restrictions regarding expression in poor communities are more strict.”

Issues relating to alternative ways of being a man, interpreting masculinity, or questioning traditional gender and sexual norms may appear to be a topic championed most prominently by the elites in societies who have privileges that allow them to be vocal and practice activism in visible ways. However, the issue also affects the poorest in society. In November 2018, Human Rights Watch documented the cases of several unemployed people and day laborers who were imprisoned by the state for “harming public morals” or charged with sodomy.

In the case of three day laborers in Sousse from January 2017, for example, Human Rights Watch found that “the investigative judge ruled that the men harmed public morals…’because they dressed up like women, used lipstick, and talked in a languid way.’”

Laws and their applications mean that it’s the state and not just society that polices masculinity. According to article 230 of the penal code, those guilty of same sex relations can be punished with up to three years in prison. Recently the Tunisian government has attempted to shut down the association Shams, which advocates for the rights of gender and sexual minorities. The state still conducts unscientific anal exams on men suspected of engaging in same-sex relations. But not all social rules are written down in law.

“The idea of public space comes with a package of restrictions and a code of conduct,” McQueer said. “It is not known by everyone, it is not written…but it’s here, it’s in the air. You understand the instruction according to the comments on the street, to the violence you encounter. We’ve been taught to act in the public space according to violence and we’ve been taught to avoid violence… I mean all sorts of violence, psychological violence, verbal violence, physical.”

“Based on my experience, I think some types of masculinity is a source of threat for me and I cannot help it….But I think it’s the concept of masculinity not the individuals. Because I’ve met a lot of men, very masculine, very macho and they are very kind and very welcoming. You cannot imagine how sensitive they are towards oppressed groups,” McQueer continued.

Asked how she would like to see masculinity evolve in Tunisia in the future, McQueer said she “would like to see masculinity taking its natural place, its proper place as a complement among many others, not as a dominant ingredient…the positioning of masculinity on a spectrum of many things a human being can be.”